The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is the extraordinary debut from British writer Mark Hodder. This exciting tale of Victorian London gone wild makes for a nearly perfect read. Hodder’s first book is smart, witty and as fun as a novel can ever be. Already I can say that this book is easily among my top reads of the year. It also is the beginning of an all new series, Burton & Swinburne, which promises many great things. If Pyr’s immensely beautiful cover design wasn’t enough to convince you to read this then let this do so: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is one hell of a debut. Actually, no, scratch that. It is one fucking hell of a debut.
Sir Richard Francis Burton: an explorer, a linguist, a scholar, and a swordsman. His reputation tarnished; his career in tatters; his former parter missing and probably dead.
Algeron Charles Swinburne: a promising young poet, a thrill-seeker, and a follower of the Marquis de Sade. For him pain is pleasure, and brandy is ruin!
They stand at crossroads in their lives and are caught in the epicenter of an empire torn by conflicting forces: Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labor; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs and anarchy.
The two men are sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when Lord Palmerston commissions Burton to investigate assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack, and to find out why werewolves are terrorizing London’s East End.
Their investigations led them to one of the defining events of the age - and the terrifying possibility that the world they inhabit shouldn’t exist at all!
We’ve all encountered, in some form or another, a steampunk opera or some sort of alternate Victorian history. It’s true, Victorian England has for the longest time been a very beloved setting for writers. In The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, Mark Hodder takes things to a level that I don’t think very many of the other stories have.
First of all, let’s establish something. Hodder’s debut is genius. I don’t think there are very many other ways to put it. His plotting is intricate and intriguing, his voice is superb, the characters are engaging and original and all of it is so unexpectedly fun. There is no better adjective to describe such all-around greatness. Genius. Don’t come into this book expecting any less. I went in with not too many expectations and I was pretty quickly shown how things would be.
The book kicks off in a semi-serious manner, with all the tone and mannerism of your average historical fiction, but very early on Hodder begins to drop hints at a pretty strong variance to the Victorian London we know of. First come the odd bits of technology that shouldn’t be there (cue the steampunk) and then comes the sort of revelations such as the fact that we are not in Victorian England since, technically, Queen Victoria died twenty years before. From there the story decidedly takes a turn into the weird and speculative and certainly for the crazier.
Hodder writes in a way that keeps the reader reading, and really what more could you ask from a writer? But Hodder does much more. He makes his delightfully quirky characters come to life in the off-beat steampunk play-land that London under his pen (or should that be key-stroke?) has become. Throughout, he appears to be continuously taking the story into crazier, funner places.
Yet still, apart from when he wants to let it go free, the story retains an under-control feel that only goes to emphasize Hodder’s skill. Because we cannot forget either that there is a a meaty, original and intriguing mystery plot at the heart of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack - I mean, you have seen the title, right? This is where Hodder, surprisingly, makes his greatest gamble, especially in the reveal. But of course, he pulls it off with great success.
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is also the type of book that builds in momentum and strength as it progresses. I wish I could get into how it get’s so great further on in the novel but that would quickly lead us in spoiler-territory. So let’s leave it at great. Or maybe amazing - that’s probably a better suited word.
Needless to say, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is a read I highly recommend. I can almost guarantee that Mark Hodder’s excellent debut will amaze you as it takes you in its wild romp through one of the best imagined steampunk Londons. Now all that is left to do is to anxiously look forward to the next Burton & Swinburne adventure...
My Rating: 5 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
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